A dumpster on fire

The Path Forward Is Not More Of The Same

December 31, 2020

The initial reaction one should have to the events of the past twelve months: Blindsided. Caught without any forward vision, government leadership and corporate managers alike have scrambled to react to drastic changes in the social, economic, and technological landscape — with some even taking advantage of the chaos.

“If only we had known” they say. There is a certain hubris to this type of response.

What we’re seeing is a depressing display of visionless autopilot — leaders reacting reflexively to emergent crises — some positioning themselves or the situation for self enrichment, self preservation, and self-aggrandization. We (citizens) get lost in the churn, holding on for dear life to the last scraps of normalcy, decency, diplomacy, and democracy.

Not surprisingly, our faith in the institutions and systems that govern our lives is at an all time low. Politicians increasingly act as if they should be held to a different standard than everyday people, and corporate leaders use bailouts to fund stock buybacks instead of protecting employee jobs. Even the rule of law seems to be eroding with the rise of right-wing extremism, unprecedented levels of state-encouraged violence, and police brutality leading to murder and continuing injustice for people of colour. We cannot and should not stand for this.

We’re constantly reacting to the atrocities going on around us. Taking a moment to think about the enormous threats that tomorrow holds is simply too much to ask when we’re this encumbered by the issues of today. We have no foresight. Our ability to see what’s out beyond our nose vanishes with every new injustice, every scandalous story, rage inducing comment, inflammatory meme, reaffirming social media notification, or shiny new gadget. We simply do what we can to get by in a landscape that is literally and figuratively on fire.

Climate change contributes year after year to record wildfires; just like the fires in your social feeds, in your video comments, in your local restaurants, grocery stores, and parking lots. Dumpster fires. A term used for anything obnoxiously out of control; also used to describe today's public discourse and the overall state of affairs.

Sometimes it seems like the lack of civility we see today has been deliberately set in motion to distract citizens from the continuous destruction of liberties, the draining of public coffers, the attacks on social safety nets, and the goose step toward totalitarian control of everything we hold dear. We eat it up — because doom and rage makes for big ad dollars, and ‘the let them eat cake’ of today’s little luxuries keeps us from revolting. That is, until the stimulus cheques run out.

Endless distraction. We are at the whim of complex systems that have become cumbersome to comprehend, operating on timescales that require us to think much further out. In our distracted state, we yearn for simple solutions to this complexity, but like a bandaid on a serious wound, they don’t really help.

Wow, Shawn. A bit grim there bud.

The common thread among our systems seems to be an unwillingness to fathom their true complexity, and an inability to look forward and proactively address them. So, what should we do? To quote Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Time and time again, we tend to rely on thinking that was designed for a different age. The policies and strategies that worked 50 years ago will not work today, because so many social, economic, and technological parameters have changed. There’s massive economic inequality, but, we also have a computer in our pockets. We have the ability to buy anything at any time, we can communicate with anyone instantly, and capture anything we want, digitally.

We’ve been dealt a crap hand this year, yet there are many who’ve had to go all in so we can keep playing (sorry for the botched poker reference). We’re learning about what is most important in our economy: essential workers. Our healthcare professionals, educators, small businesses, delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, and all the others who take great risks to keep some semblance of normalcy afloat. Unfortunately, the power structures that exist value essential workers the least. They have been failed in one way or another by understaffing, improper PPE provisions, underpayment, or altogether being forced to work in unsafe conditions.

These systems — our systems — are broken. Before we even begin to repair them we need to understand them. We are surrounded by processes, policies, and institutions that are fragile Jenga towers. One hastily misplaced bet on a solution could send it all tumbling down. We need to think carefully about where to intervene, and how.

The path forward is not more of the same. Great care and empathy should go into understanding these problems — we need a human approach, because all these problems are human in one way or another. Because all of our systems are comprised of humans providing value for other humans, human behaviour, incentives systems, cognition, and more must factor into our thinking.

We must also work together to understand what the future could hold, working toward anticipating future problems for future humans. Most know this as strategic foresight, and it can serve as bulwark for anyone considering planning anything, whether it’s a government policy, a corporate vision, or to pack an umbrella.

When we reflexively react to the problems before us, the solutions are often a band-aid, a patchwork of quick fixes that can result in future pain. In 2021, let’s address complex problems with this high-quality, human-centered forward vision — to anticipate the events that could unfold tomorrow, so that we can make preparations today. We need to rethink how we think, and not give in to the sugary-sweet high of supposed simple solutions. There are no simple solutions without deep understanding of the problems at hand.

Bye 2020, you cruel scoundrel, may you be the worst year of the coming decade.

Shawn Cole 2021
Strategic Foresight, Research & Design